Paul Mescal thoroughly deserves his Oscar nomination for this heartwrenching father-daughter tale from first-time feature filmmaker Charlotte Wells.
February 22, 2023
The simplest things in life can be the most revealing, whether it's a question asked of a father by a child, an exercise routine obeyed almost mindlessly or a man stopping to smoke someone else's old cigarette while wandering through a holiday town alone at night. The astonishing feature debut by Scottish writer/director Charlotte Wells, Aftersun is about the simple things. Following the about-to-turn-31 Calum (Paul Mescal, The Lost Daughter) and his daughter Sophie (debutant Frankie Corio) on vacation in Turkey in the late 90s, it includes all of the above simple things, plus more. It tracks, then, that this coming-of-age story on three levels — of an 11-year-old flirting with adolescence, a dad struggling with his place in the world, and an adult woman with her own wife and family grappling with a life-changing experience from her childhood — is always a movie of deep, devastating and revealing complexity.
Earning the internet's Normal People-starring boyfriend a Best Actor Oscar nomination, and deservedly so, Aftersun is a reflective, ruminative portrait of heartbreak. It's a quest to find meaning in sorrow and pain, too, and in processing the past. Wells has crafted a chronicle of interrogating, contextualising, reframing and dwelling in memories; an examination of leaving and belonging; and an unpacking of the complicated truths that a kid can't see about a parent until they're old enough to be that parent. Breaking up Calum and Sophie's sun-dappled coastal holiday with the older Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall, Vox Lux) watching camcorder footage from the trip, sifting through her recollections and dancing it out under a nightclub's strobing lights in her imagination, this is also a stunning realisation that we'll always read everything we can into a loved one's actions with the benefit of hindsight, but all we ever truly have is the sensation that lingers in our hearts and heads.
That aforementioned question arrives early in Aftersun: "when you were 11, what did you think you'd be doing now?" Sophie asks. A query that's been uttered many times to many people, Wells does indeed mean to get Calum taking stock, remembering his youthful hopes and dreams, and seeing the chasm between what he once wanted and where adulthood has brought him. She also wants viewers sharing the train of thought with him, in a movie that doesn't just feel personal in every second — the filmmaker has called it "emotionally autobiographical" — but gets its audience feeling that it is personal to them. That's a remarkable skill, making a piece of fiction drawn partly and loosely from someone's facts feel as vivid to you as if you'd lived it yourself. And, for 90s kids like Sophie, it doesn't just spring from the meticulous period detail in the sets, wardrobe choices, and 'Macarena', 'Losing My Religion' and 'Tubthumping' on the soundtrack.
Consider Calum's quietly, subtly shaken response to Sophie's innocent inquiry — the unsettled look on his face momentarily, owning the brief but loaded pause, before he remembers that he needs a dad's reaction — Exhibit A among the evidence that Mescal is doing career-best work. The actor still only has a handful of screen credits to his name, scoring his Academy Award nod in just his third movie role. He's never been anything less than phenomenal in anything he's been in. Earthy and charming, gentle and fragile, stoic and raw, so wounded inside and so reluctant to share it, and sporting a vulnerable gaze and a cast over one wrist, Mescal is simply heartwrenching in Aftersun, however, as it keeps diving into Sophie's remembrances of her oft-smoking, always supportive, tai chi-practising, playfully bantering, tenderly doting but also silently depressed dad.
Understanding why the adult Sophie is scouring VHS tapes and her mind's eye for far more than mere nostalgia involves doing what everyone on a resort getaway does: hanging out. Aftersun spends much of its time in the simple holiday moments, including by the pool, at dinner, singing karaoke, day tripping, and in Sophie and Calum's room — and lets these ordinary, everyday occurrences, and the details that flow from them, confess everything they can. With a blue hue, the film pieces together the pair's history along the way, with Sophie living in Glasgow with her mum, Calum based in London but hardly settled or happy, and this vacation a rare chance for the two to enjoy quality time alone. It also hears the instances where he's mistaken for her older brother and, not unrelated, sees her yearning to be liked by the older kids staying at the same hotel as they drink, banter, party and represent a step closer to her dad's existence.
Mescal gets a tilt at Hollywood's night of nights for his efforts, but Corio is just as extraordinary — perhaps more so given that it's her first acting role. Watching the duo together is a marvel and, befitting the wistful sensation that washes through the feature about its central voyage, a rarity. Aftersun is sensual and dreamy in its structure and texture, elaborately constructed to look and feel that way, and anchored by two sensationally naturalistic performances and one sublimely authentic rapport. Everything about the picture ripples with a lived-in air: Mescal and Corio alone and combined alike, the emotions so tremendously conveyed in their portrayals, the genuine rather than fetishised 90s minutiae, Catatonia's 'Road Rage' and All Saints' 'Never Ever' echoing among the pitch-perfect music choices, and those flashes of hazy lose-yourself-to-dance reverie that include the grownup Sophie as well as her vision of Calum.
Sophie, Calum and the inescapable aching that haunts both make an unforgettable trio, but Aftersun adds more names to that list, Wells chief among them. One of her great feats in penning and helming a movie that itself is a great feat is ensuring it resembles a flickering memory, complete with making it look and play that way — aided by cinematographer Gregory Oke (Raf) and editor Blair McClendon (The Assistant) — with its faded, glitching videotape aesthetic. Her sense of pace, feel and emotional storytelling, and her ability to build layers everywhere, is as engrained as Mescal and Corio's easy vibe. Her way with all the details revealed in all those small things, and with music drops that say everything (the use of David Bowie and Queen's 'Under Pressure' is majestic and dazzling) is as well. There's nothing tiny about the talents on show here, or the story shared, or one of the most resonant, intelligent and shattering final shots any film has ever managed. "Wish we could've stayed for longer," Sophie says before that. When Calum replies "me too", he's speaking for all of us.
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